Two Years Ago.
“What do you mean, he was expelled?! Do you know how much it cost to send that boy to that school?”
Sixteen-year-old Miles Cleary lay on his bed. The lanky, olive-skinned boy with shaggy black hair stared up at the ceiling of his room while he listened to his adopted parents ‘discussing’ his expulsion. Having been taken in by the two around ten years earlier when he was six, Miles still remembered being terrified every time either of them got a little bit upset that they would throw him back into the foster system that he had been a part of ever since his actual parents had up and disappeared when he had been only three.
Now, of course, the boy knew better. He knew his adopted parents, while they may not have been biologically related to him, still loved him nonetheless. They wouldn’t get rid of him just because they were upset. Which was what actually made this whole situation even harder, because he hated disappointing either of them.
He’d lost control, he knew that. Ronney Swank had deserved a good pop in the face for the way he had been bragging about manipulating Tracey Burge, a ninth grader, into a lot more physical of a relationship than she had been ready for, and then dumping the girl as soon as he’d gotten what he wanted. There was no question about it. He’d deserved to be hit. Miles didn’t feel bad about that part.
But somehow, he had done more damage than he had intended to. Even though he’d only hit the boy once, Ronney had been thrown backward into the lockers, which themselves had dented inward. The boy’s nose and jaw had been broken by that single punch, and he had damage to his back and arm from the impact against the lockers. He was going to be in the hospital for a while.
Needless to say, the school had expelled Miles immediately, and there was talk of their family being sued by the Swanks. Which was just… fantastic. Just really fucking fantastic.
With a long, heavy sigh as he stared at the ceiling, the boy muttered mostly under his breath, “The worst part is, I’m pretty sure I’d still hit him if I had the chance to do it all over again.”
“Being willing to stand up for those who are being mistreated should never be considered the ‘worst part’ of anything, Mr. Cleary.”
The sudden, unexpected voice made Miles jerk upright with a yelp. He spun on his backside, staring at the figure who stood in his doorway. There was a tall, beautiful red-haired woman there, who wore a pristine black suit. Her eyes were kind and soft as she regarded him.
“Wh-what–who–?” Scrambling to his feet, Miles quickly brushed himself off. “Who… who are you, a cop? Where’s my mom and dad? I don’t think you’re supposed to be in here talking to me without them. Mom?” At the last, he raised his voice to call past the woman. “Dad?”
Holding up one hand, the woman gave a slight shake of her head. “It’s alright, Mr. Cleary. I am not a police officer. My name is Gaia Sinclaire, of Crossroads Academy. And… it is best that we speak privately right now. Because what I have to say involves your birth parents. And an opportunity that is solely yours to choose whether to accept or not.”
Blinking once at that, Miles squinted at the woman in confusion. “My birth parents? What do you know about– Crossroads Academy? Another private school? Oh boy, are you ever barking up the wrong tree. Trust me, miss, you definitely don’t want anything to do with me. Besides, my parents aren’t gonna pay for another private school after– wait, how did you even get in here? My… they wouldn’t let you up here without being right with you. And what do you mean, an opportunity? What’s going on?”
Offering him a small smile, the woman–Gaia Sinclaire, started with, “I assure you, I am most certainly not ‘barking up the wrong tree’. And you may wish to sit down for the rest of this, Mr. Cleary.
“Because it it quite a story.”
One Year Ago
“Aight, Miles, we’re all here.” Standing on the beach of Crossroads Island about as far from the actual school as they could possibly get, Kaleigh Ruffin spread both arms out while staring at him, the green-trimmed uniform shirt slipping a bit to show her pale, freckled arms. “What was the big emergency that we had to come all the way out here for?”
For a moment, Miles regarded the girl, as well as the rest of his team here at Crossroads. They had been a group like this for almost a year by this point, and had been through quite a lot.
There was Kaleigh, of course. The red-haired, feisty little girl had an incredible temper that was matched only by her generous heart. Then there was her quieter African-American roommate in a white-lined security uniform, Emily Perry; Miles’ own roommate, the Heretic-born Slavic-looking blond boy Royce Jacoby in his purple-lined uniform; and finally, Jason Trips and Chas Mena, wearing red and blue accented uniforms respectively. The last two were not related at all (as was easily noted by Chas’s heavily Hispanic features as opposed to Jason’s tanned, yet definitely white ethnicity), though they might as well have been. Within the first day of being made roommates, the two had practically been finishing each other’s sentences.
Miles himself, in his own red-trimmed uniform, completed the group. And now his five teammates were standing in a semicircle, waiting for the boy to explain why he’d made them come all the way out here. But instead of speaking right away, he took a long, deep breath. This was hard. Even harder than he’d thought it would be, and he’d been trying to plan out how to have this exact conversation for… a long time. Even knowing that he had an out if it didn’t go well, that Gaia wouldn’t let things get out of control didn’t really help that much. Yes, if they reacted badly to what he was going to say, it wouldn’t endanger everyone else who was in his position.
But he would still know that it had gone wrong. And if it did, if Gaia had to step in and undo this conversation so that they wouldn’t remember it, would he ever be able to look at these guys the same way again?
“Dude?” That was Chas, the boy frowning at him as he reached out to poke Miles. “You okay?”
“Yeah,” Jason agreed, “you look like you’re about to tell us that you’re a time-traveler from the future, sent back to stop the world from ending and–wait, you’re not, right? Because the further that sentence went on in my head, the more I realized that it’s not exactly completely impossible in this place. And if you are a time-traveler, please tell me indestructible robots are not involved.”
Smiling despite himself, Miles promised, “I am not a time-traveler, and as far as I know, there’s no apocalyptic future or indestructible Austrian robots.”
“Too bad,” Royce lamented with a low sigh as the blonde boy shook his head. “Arnie was hot in those first couple of movies. Those biceps, mreow.”
Despite himself, Miles forced himself to speak up before they could all get too offtrack. The truth was, he would very much have rathered just have an innocent, goofy conversation about nothing important. They were all good at that.
But his team deserved to know the truth about him, about his past. They deserved a chance. And he’d been putting this all off for too long as it was.
So, before they could all get distracted once more, he announced, “I know who my parents are.”
That got their attention. Blinking at him, Emily was actually the first to speak (which just showed how surprised her much more boisterous roommate was). “What… you mean your real parents? You found out who they are?”
Grimacing at the reminder of his months-long lie, Miles weakly admitted, “Actually, I’ve… sort of known who they were, who my father was, since before school started. Since Headmistress Sinclaire came to recruit me, actually.”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa.” Kaleigh was shaking her head. “What do you mean, Gaia came to recruit you? The headmistress herself? What’d you do to merit such an important recruiter? What, was your dad some secret Heretic hero or something?”
“Yeah, man, why would you say you didn’t know who they were?” Jason asked, frowning in confusion. “What’s the big deal? And what does that have to do with making us come all the way out here? You didn’t make us come out here just so you could tell us that you’re embarrassed about your real parents being dicks or something, did you?”
“No, no, I–” Miles sighed then, folding his arms tight against his chest while trying to remind himself to just push on. Tell them the truth. He had to tell them the truth. “Okay, look, I’m gonna tell you guys. But you have to promise to just stand here and listen, alright? You have to let me get through it. You remember our secret from a couple weeks ago, at the–”
“The thing that we all swore we weren’t going to talk about?” Royce suddenly cut in. He was frowning at the boy. “Remember, we said we’d never bring it up, never talk about it, never discuss what we did.”
“Yeah, well…” Wincing, Miles took a second to look over each of their curious gazes before announcing, “We have to talk about it after all. Sorry, we just do.”
Chas pointed a finger at him. “Look man, she was pregnant. I don’t care what’s going on, I ain’t killing a pregnant woman, you understand? I didn’t think this was gonna be a thing with you or what it has to do with your real parents or whatever, but they shoulda done a little more research before they sent us out to kill a Stranger that happened to be pregnant.”
“I’m not upset that we didn’t kill the pregnant woman!” Miles denied quickly. “Damn it, I just don’t know how to–”
Kaleigh was making a face as she put in, “Was that weird? I mean, whatever… offspring or whatever she has are gonna be evil when they grow up anyway, right? I mean… I mean…” She trailed off, gesturing vaguely with a confused look.
“Then let ‘em grow up and be evil so that someone can kill them,” Chas retorted. “Like I said, I ain’t killing no pregnant woman, and I ain’t killing no kids. That’s like… Eden’s Garden stuff.”
“But if the offspring kills someone else in the meantime,” Jason questioned, “does that make it our fault? I mean, we could’ve stopped it before anything bad happened.”
“I’d say killing a kid is pretty bad,” Royce pointed out. “And that’s getting really deep into the ‘would you kill Hitler in his crib’ stuff, except we don’t know…. I mean, we do know that they’re evil because they’re monsters. But–I mean…” He, like Kaleigh, trailed off with a confused look.
It was a look that Miles knew well. He’d seen it on all of his team’s faces since the moment that they had all decided, together, to spare the pregnant Stranger that had been one of the last targets of their most recent hunt. They had let her escape, standing at the edge of the building to watch her flee. Any single one of them could have put a stop to it, could have killed her. They’d had plenty of time, and her back had been to them. For those twenty seconds or so as the woman fled over the lot and through the field, they could have ended it and killed her.
They didn’t. And that had been what had convinced Miles to tell his team the truth. Except it was proving harder to get the words out than he had anticipated, and the rest of the team was already deep in conversation about the woman they had released. Apparently despite their initial promise to never talk about it, they had all been thinking about it a lot. And he had opened up the floodgates.
Still, he had to get through this. There wasn’t going to be a better time, because if he lost his nerve again, he might never regain it. But every time he opened his mouth to say what he needed to say, someone else would speak and the whole group would jump to another tangent. That continued for another minute or so until the pressure boiling up inside of Miles grew to be too much and… popped.
“My dad is the Bogeyman!”
Well, that got their attention. The other five members of his team all went completely silent, staring at him in confusion. Finally, it was Royce who managed, “I… what?”
Tilting his head back to stare at the sky, Miles let out a long breath through pursed in a half-whistle before returning his gaze to his team… his friends. “Okay, here’s the short version. When my mom, my real mom, was a kid, she thought there was a monster in her room at night. You know, under the bed, in the closet, hiding in the corner, the usual. She was a kid, like, maybe nine or ten? So she’d call in her dad and he’d do the rounds, but never find anything.”
“Considering where we are and what we do,” Jason put in then, “why do I doubt that there wasn’t anything to find?”
Grimacing, Miles gave a slight nod. “While that was going on, Mom met this kid around her age in the back field behind their house. They were pretty isolated, without very many neighbors. She had to take the bus to get to school. So she didn’t meet a lot of kids her age near the house. His name was Caleb, and he said that his family was some kind of weird religious isolationist sect that lived way back in the woods.
“So, Mom and this kid started playing together every day after school. Meanwhile, at night, she would be convinced there was a monster in the room and her dad had to check it all the time. But, again, he never found anything. That went on for a few months.”
Seeing that he had his teammates’ rapt attention, Miles bit his lip and hesitated slightly before pushing on. “One night, Mom woke up. It was about two in the morning or so, and there was this figure standing over the bed. He was a big guy. Even bigger than her dad. Mom screamed, but the big guy put his hand down against her mouth. It was so big, it almost covered her entire head.
“It took a minute, but Mom recognized him finally. He was this farmhand guy that her family gave some work to a few months earlier. His name was Grant, and all Mom knew was that he had suddenly stopped working at the house. She didn’t know at the time that it was because he had been looking at her the way he shouldn’t look at a kid, and her dad had caught him and fired him on the spot.”
Emily was the one who found her voice first. “He should’ve killed the piece of shit.”
Miles nodded. “No kidding. But now the guy was there, he had his hand over her mouth and he started to tell her… Well, point is, he started to tell her the bad things he wanted to do. And then… well, he screamed.”
Kaleigh blinked. “He screamed?”
“Yuuuup,” Miles confirmed. “Mostly because there was this furry little half-human, half-monkey figure wrapped around his leg with his teeth digging into the guy’s thigh while the claws on his left paw were buried in the his crotch.
“So they stumbled around a bit, and this guy kept trying to kick the monkey thing off his leg. Then Mom screamed too and jumped on the guy’s back. They thrashed around a bunch, and then hit the big mirror that was up against the wall. There was blood everywhere, and the guy finally got free and took off. A second later, the monkey thing went after him and Mom was alone again.”
“Where the hell were her parents in all this?” Chas demanded.
“Tied up, it turned out,” Miles replied before adding, “Mom had to call 911 because she couldn’t get the ropes off by herself. It was this whole big thing, and the cops didn’t believe her about the little monkey thing.
“Anyway, a few nights later, she got that same feeling about something being under her bed. Only this time, she didn’t call for her dad. She leaned down and looked for herself.”
Royce lifted his chin, his voice confident. “It was that kid. Caleb. He was the monkey thing.”
Miles nodded. “Yeah. Turned out he was a Stranger. Specifically, he was something called a Kejjerfiet. Or, as a lot of people know them…”
“Bogeymen,” Kaleigh finished for him.
“Exactly,” Miles confirmed. “Except the bogeymen, or at least the Kejjerfiet version of them, aren’t there to eat or hurt the kids.”
“Excuse me?” Jason was staring at him, as were the others.
“It’s true,” Miles quickly insisted. “Kejjerfiet actually see themselves as sort of… bodyguards to human children. I’m not sure why, but they do. The homes that they stay in are basically places where they believe that bad things are going to happen without them. I think it has something to do with sensing evil intentions in an area or whatever.”
“No, no, no, no.” Jason’s head was shaking. “No, we can’t listen to this. This is fucked up, Miles. You can’t be serious. We can’t stand here and listen to him trying to say this shit!”
Kaleigh snapped, “We already let the pregnant woman go, Jace. I think we’re way beyond just accepting exactly what they tell us. We’re too far in this to say he’s the crazy one. So just… listen to him, I guess.”
Giving the girl a grateful nod, Miles continued. “The point is, they hide out in a room until the evil thing shows itself, then they kill it. Or at least stop it. Usually without the kid remembering that anything happened. Except in this case…”
“Blood,” Emily realized. “She was turned into a Natural.”
Once again, Miles nodded. “Yeah, so Caleb told her the truth. He told her all about Strangers and humans, and about how his parents had been killed. He’d been wandering, trying to find a place to go when he came across her family‘s house, and he sensed the evil inside. So he had set himself up. Because it’s what his parents would’ve wanted him to do, even though he was too little to really do what he should’ve been able to.
“Point is, he tried. And now he was there to help teach Mom how to use her powers. He showed her how to change forms into that furry, clawed thing, how to blend into even the smallest amount of shadow to turn almost invisible, how to teleport small distances through shadows, and more. They basically taught each other.
“Oh. Oh my God,” Kaleigh blurted. “When you said that your dad was the Bogeyman, you were really—”
“Really serious, yeah,” Miles interrupted with a quick nod. “They grew up together. They spent a bunch of time learning from and teaching each other. And when they were old enough, they fell in love. Eventually, they had me.”
Everyone seemed enraptured by the story. As he trailed off, Royce quickly blurted, “Well shit, then what happened?”
Miles shook his head. “That’s the thing, I don’t know. See, a lot of that I got from Gaia when she came to recruit me. And the specifics about that night I got from my Edge vision. But after a certain point, Gaia didn’t know what happened. She never found out. My parents just disappeared and I ended up in foster care.”
Jason was shaking his head. “Whoa, whoa, whoa. Okay, great story, but it can’t be true. First of all, Strangers are monsters, not daddies. Second of all, they don’t protect little kids. They eat them. Third of all, even if you were half Stranger, you couldn’t be a Heretic. It just doesn’t work like that.”
“Gaia changed it. I don’t know how,” Miles informed them, “but she did. She changed the Edge so that it would let people like me become Heretics. Because she wants people like you to understand that they’re not all evil. We are not all evil.”
His team was staring at him, open-mouthed. None of them could find their voices for several long, torturous seconds. Miles was terrified that he had guessed wrong, that they would react badly. He wouldn’t have blamed them, really. Not after the things they had been told about Strangers.
Royce eventually raised both hands. “This is insane. I’m sorry, it just–it’s insane! You want us to believe that, what, you’re part monster, only monsters aren’t always monsters? Sometimes they’re good? That’s just–just… fucked up, dude.”
Emily interrupted. “Like Kaleigh said, we let the pregnant woman go.”
“But that’s different!” Royce insisted. “I mean, she was… the kid was–it’s just… it’s different. Isn’t it? Isn’t it?” He sounded far more like he was pleading than actually stating a fact.
Miles met his gaze for a moment before slowly moving his eyes over all of them. “You tell me,” he replied. “Is it different? Am I a monster because my dad wasn’t human? Or was the monster the person, the human being, that my dad saved my mom from? Is that piece of shit better just because he’s human, than the person who saved an innocent child from the evil shit he would’ve done to her? If there can be evil humans, humans who do… who do that to innocent children, then who’s to say there can’t be good Strangers? I mean, if humans were all judged by the worst of our species, maybe there’d be a whole species out there dedicated to wiping us out too.”
For a few long seconds, he didn’t know how they would end up taking that. The rest of his team just looked at each other, their expressions impossible to read. He saw some doubt, some confusion, even some anger. And more. There were so many emotions there that he couldn’t hope to keep track of or identify them all.
Finally, it was Jason who spoke up. “Dude, you… you sort of lied to us for most of a year. But I uhh… I guess I understand why.”
“But what do we do now?” That was Chas, shaking his head quickly. “I mean… you want us to believe that–I mean, maybe your dad was–Damn it, I don’t know. Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck, we let that woman go and everything got so goddamn confusing. Now there’s this? I mean, you already said that Gaia knows what’s going on, but shouldn’t we tell… I dunno, somebody?”
“Tell them what?” Emily put in. “You know what most of the others would do if they found out about him. I can’t do that. We can’t do that.”
The group exchanged brief looks once more, before nodding. “We won’t tell anyone,” Kaleigh announced for the group as a whole. “I dunno about this whole… everything you’re saying, but we owe you that much at least. You’re… you’re one of us.”
“She’s right,” Royce agreed. “I don’t know how I feel about it either, but… you’re not a monster, man. So maybe…” He hesitated, clearly torn for a few seconds before settling on, “Maybe we just stay quiet about the whole thing, at least until we find out more.”
“Find out more?” Miles asked, frowning a little.
“Sure,” Chas confirmed. “You said you didn’t know what happened to your parents, right? So let’s find out. Let’s try to find out what happened to them. And while we’re at it… maybe we’ll find out more about these… not-evil Strangers. You say it’s true, I… I dunno. But after that pregnant woman and what you said… maybe we could at least investigate it. We could find out more.
“Because quite frankly, if you’re right, then this school is the most fucked up place on the planet.”
The reptilian man lunged toward Miles with a deep-throated snarl, showing deadly teeth while raking at him with a handful of wicked claws. Claws which, if they had connected, would have left the boy paralyzed just long enough to experience every agonizing moment of being eaten alive.
Fortunately, Miles had no intention of allowing that to happen. Flashing a brief, toothy smile of his own, the boy waited a half second for the reptile to fully commit himself, before abruptly sidestepping as his right arm snapped out. As he did so, the metallic gauntlet on that arm seemed to disintegrate, breaking apart into hundreds of separate, tiny parts. In that brief instant, the broken-up parts of the gauntlet were identifiable as tiny robotic bees, their mechanical wings flapping furiously to create a high-pitched buzzing sound. In that same second, however, the separated bees rejoined once more. This time, however, instead of forming a gauntlet, they became a long, curved sword. The same honeycomb-like hexagon patterns that had been built into the gauntlet were present within the blade itself, which was soon stained by the dark green blood of the reptile-man as he beheaded himself with his own lunge.
That was Miles’ weapon: a cyberform that was actually an entire swarm of tiny robot bees, which could shape themselves into various weapons and tools for him to use. They were controlled through the ‘queen bee’, which was attached to his ear similarly to a Bluetooth device that essentially read his mind and sent his commands to the rest of the swarm.
Staggering a little with a gasp of pleasure as his kill-aura sprang to life, the eighteen-year-old boy barely managed to catch the sound of footsteps rushing up behind him. They were coming too quickly for him to turn, the figure already almost right on top of him.
Thankfully, he didn’t need to. A simple thought made the armor that covered his left arm and back break apart into a swarm of tiny flying insects as well. Rather than immediately forming together into something else, however, this swarm all turned their (literal) collective attention to the incoming threat. Each fired a tiny, yet painful jolt of energy. Taken apart, it would have been almost nothing. The ‘sting’ from one of the bees was enough to be painful for a child, yet easily ignored by anyone of any actual strength.
But together, the combined sting shot from the entire group caught Miles’ would-be attacker straight in the chest and knocked them to the ground, twitching and moaning as their body’s muscles alternately spasmed and froze. It kept them busy long enough for the boy to turn and see another of those lizard-men. This one had been holding a spear, which he grabbed for a second before Miles put his own sword through the figure’s chest, ceasing both his attacker’s random twitchy spasms, and his attempt to swing that spear up.
Once more, that aura sprang up, but Miles didn’t actually care about the distant pleasurable feeling. He was too busy cursing repeatedly.
“What?” Royce, jogging up to him from across the warehouse where they had been fighting, blurted. “What happened? Wh–aww shit, they’re dead too? Damn it. Tell me we got something out of them, man. Two months just tracking down this one lead about what happened to your parents, tell me it wasn’t all for nothing.”
“It wasn’t for nothing,” Miles confirmed, while his sword and the swarm of individual bees all reformed back into their default form of his armor. “But it wasn’t enough. I got a name. That’s it, just one name.”
“A name?” Kaleigh asked as she and the others, all worn from the fight they had just been through, asked. “What do you mean? What name?”
“The name of the monster that has my parents. Or had them, I dunno.” Miles frowned thoughtfully. “It wasn’t clear. The point is, he’s the next step to finding them. There was something about a… a fight club or an arena or something, I’m not sure.”
“A arena for Alters and Heretics?” Chas demanded. “Who the hell is this guy, Michael Vick?”
“Worse,” Miles replied softly, giving a long, low sigh. “He’s a necromancer.
“A necromancer named Fossor.”